Posted by: coastlinesproject | September 14, 2015

Plum Island Report.

Plum Island

August 31, 2015



With our mental provisioning in hand I decided to start investigating how New England had fared during Hurricane Sandy.


I didn’t have far to go. Our own backyard had suffered as much damage as any other spot in New England. I drove to nearby Plum Island to take a look. Plum Island has become the poster child for everything you shouldn’t do to a barrier beach.


Groins built in the Sixties created a hotspot of erosion that led to 39 houses being condemned in 2013. A half-mile long illegal seawall failed and was rebuilt in 2013, 2014 and 2015. A jetty repaired in 2014, put a hundred more houses at risk on the northern tip of the island.


All these projects had been undertaken without doing studies into the actual coastal geology of the area. And, as in New Orleans, the resulting damage had been caused more by the hand of man than the hand of nature.


I had spent the night before Sandy filming as Plum Island residents used an oversized bulldozer to scrape sand off the public beach at low tide and pile it up into a 40-foot high artificial sand dune against their homes’ foundations. The storm surge swept the sand dune away in next tidal cycle leaving staircases dangling 40 feet high up in the air.


Even so, New England had dodged a bullet. If the storm had arrived ten hours earlier or ten hours later, New England would have suffered the same amount of damage as New York or New Jersey. But Sandy had arrived exactly at low tide so its storm surge and waves were a good 12 feet lower than if the storm had arrived just a few hours before or after.


But, if the damage that happened on the north end of Plum Island was caused by human activities, I wanted to find out what had happened to the southern end of the island where there were no anti-erosion structures.


I could have driven half an hour north to Newbury, then half an hour south on Plum Island. Instead I launched my kayak from Pavillion Beach and made the trip in 15 minutes.


The reason that my water route was so short is that the southern end of Plum Island starts in Ipswich, then stretches north 8 miles, to protect the towns of Rowley, Newbury and Newburyport. I can’t vouch for the good people of Rowley and the Newburys but I know Ipswichites are concerned about what will happen when the Atlantic Ocean bursts through the Plum Island’s barrier beach.


But the water crossing is not without its own perils. You have make your way a hundred yards upstream, then paddle furiously straight across the current making sure you don’t get swamped by someone’s wake or be swept into the open Atlantic by the outgoing tide.


But the short trip to the Sandy Point State Park is well worth it. You find yourself on one of the most beautiful beaches on the East Coast. Every year the end of the point grows as sand is eroded out the center of the island to build up a half a mile wide shelf of sparkling white sand and turquoise water. It makes you feel like you could be bone fishing on the Bahama Banks.


Endangered piping plovers dash comically in and out of receding waves and flocks of terns jostle for airspace over schools of silversides driven to the surface by striped bass. The bass had arrived the night before to feed on millions of squid that had congregated offshore to lay masses of gelatinous eggs.


Now many of the long stringy masses torn off the bottom from last night’s storm glistened in the late afternoon sun. The eggs would probably die, but it seemed of little consequence in the face of such rampant fecundity.


But what I didn’t see was any kind of human tragedy. Just plants, fish, birds and people taking advantage of the beach adapting naturally to sea level rise. It brought home the point that a beach without human structures never suffers from natural disasters they just grow, pulsate and change after every storm as nature intends that they should.




William Sargent is the author of 20 books on science and the environment. His newest book, Energy Wars; A Report from the Front is available in local bookstores and through and at







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